Wednesday, February 08, 2006

My Parents - thanks guys!

It's my late Dad's birthday and he would have been 80 today. It's an age more and more people actually reach - Garret Fitzgerald is fit and well and will be 80 tomorrow (9th Feb is my own birthday also).

Both my parents are deceased and I'm their one and only offspring. So I feel if I don't write of them in praise and thanks for how they helped me then nobody ever will.

In hindsight, after my parents married in 1951 they lived for quite some time on the edge of poverty. Mum had been a shirt factory worker from Derry, my Dad a farm hand from Meath. I came along in 1955. At that stage my Dad was a casual labourer in the ESB (not properly staffed) and my Mum had been doing occasional cleaning work for a nuns convent. The three of us were in a rented 10ft x 10ft ground floor room in a house in Clontarf and a toilet was shared with other tenants. On the window of our room there were vertical security bars and my Mum used to say it felt like a prison cell. There was so little space that my parents shared a single bed which was widened fractionally by some cushions. I slept in a cot in the room right up to almost eight years old when we finally moved. There was simply no space in the room for an extra bed. In the final three years I was increasingly sleeping in a kind of foetal position as I was easily outgrowing the cot.

Dad worked in the rural electrification teams out around Wicklow and was away for long hours each day. Working conditions were bad and pay was even worse. His stories of challenges in bringing electricity up to Kippure mountain to the mast for the about-to-come RTE sounded like Napoleonic adventures deep in the Russian winter. The alternative in the 1950s would have been emigration to Britain and I suppose he was lucky to have any work here. Things were tough for them but eventually my Dad became a permanent linesman in the ESB and after a struggle the folks managed to get a mortgage for a new terraced 3 bedroom house in Finglas in late 1962. This was a huge step forward for them but a big financial burden. They were relieved to be able to provide me with a full sized bed and my own room. My mother supplemented the meagre wages by renting the extra few rooms. The third bedroom went to one of my cousins from Donegal who was starting as a 3rd level student in a Dublin college. The front room downstairs went to another cousin who worked in Dublin. It was a full and happy house, my cousins were plenty of fun, almost like older siblings.

My parents had left the education system very early themselves and they did their best to help me to do better. They gently encouraged me through school and every little success I achieved they praised. Thankfully free secondary education came in just in time for us to benefit. I was then gradually taking an interest in science and technology. When the option for third level education came along I had achieved sufficient Leaving Cert results so we got a grant to pay the fees, helped by the family means test. I studied full time for four years towards a degree in electrical engineering. I felt guilty in not pulling in some income to help the folks. I had few part time jobs, but tried to ease their burden by cycling the sixteen miles college round trip each day and taking my Mum's packed lunch and flask to minimise expenses. I was determined not to let them down and studied long hours in the college library on almost every weekday evening. I know it was a sacrifice for them to be carrying me on their backs up to the age of 22. To see their humble smiling faces at the eventual conferring in Trinity College was a big moment for me. Later that evening at home my Dad clowned around posing for photos wearing my gown and holding the degree. I'm delighted to have those photos - he deserved a big share of the credit!

Dad was an intelligent man, a quiet thinker. He could have been anything he wanted with the right breaks. He was a versatile DIY handyman and I picked up many good tips from him in that area. He did progress as much as he could in the ESB and by retirement he was an area supervisor for maintenance crews. Mum was enterprising, always got the best out of any money they had, even made herself a rather good dressing table from bare timber. They were very good people, well known for their kindness and liked by everyone.

My parents lived to see me have a good career and become very happily married. They enjoyed their three grandchildren. By now Dad at last had his own car and the pair of them had fun driving to different parts of Ireland on mini-breaks.

Dad died rather suddenly in 1990 from a heart attack less than a year after retiring. One of my maternal aunts who was widowed had been living with my parents. Incredibly she also died from a heart attack only a month after my Dad, leaving my Mum in the house on her own. Mum stayed on in the house for another 8 years with another elderly lady lodger added for company. I then moved Mum into a nursing home very near where my own family lived in Glenageary and I could visit her much more regularly. She had been in gradual decline and died three years later.

I suppose if the parents were to measure my success in terms of physical wealth then they did not live long enough to witness me moving on to form a very successful telecoms company, a move to a huge house in Killiney with stunning views, quality cars in the driveways etc. How different it all is to the humble start in the tiny rented room in Clontarf. But the folks would know that the real success was how they had taught me good values and gave me the opportunity to be happy, well educated and work for anything I could dream of. They knew they had set me on the right path, given me all the right ingredients. I still sense them all around me and I thank them big time.

Happy Birthday Dad!


Hilary Mhic Shuibhne said...

What a lovely tribute to your parents. Go n'éirí leat a Sheáin.

Paul Moore said...

Hi John.

I enjoyed reading the eulogy to your late parents. I think all of us who have just hit the 50s generation and who were lucky enough to acquire a third-level education owe a great debt of gratitiude to our parents. Especially those of us who came from more humble backgrounds and probably only appreciated after the fact the scrimping, saving and general sacrifice that they made on our behalf. My parents went to England in the 50s because it was the only option open to them, and they hated every moment of it. I think that many of us at Kevin Street have similar remembrances.

I was the first person on our street to get a third-level education. I was the first person on our street to be paid a monthly salary, as distinct from a weekly wage. I hope that our generation will be the last where emigration was seen to be the only solution - it is not such a long time ago when people who didn't consider emigration were not taken seriously. But, to come back to our parents' generation, I think the Irish expression "never will their likes be seen again" best sums it up best. Sorry, unlike Hilary, my Leaving Cert Irish has long since been supplanted, but from memory, I think it was an expression from Peig Sayers or Robin Flowers.

Thanks for the article John, appreciated.

John of Dublin said...

Thanks Paul, very interesting. I have to say I found that article a bit hard to write as in today's world I'm sometimes a little embarrassed with coming from a poorer background. It didn't feel poor at the time. But you are right, so many of us were in the same situation back then being born in the 1950s. Joe was telling me a similar tale at the re-union. I can also relate to what you said about being unusual in going for a degree at the time. The best friends I made were at 3rd Level as we had so much in common in striving to do better.